Every text-centric social platform has its own way of nudging people to write the content needed to keep other users engaged. “What is happening?!” yelps the compose box on Elon Musk’s X, formerly Twitter. Meta’s equivalent on Facebook wonders, “What’s on your mind?” No matter what the question, it’s always been on users to conjure up a response.
Pebble, a Twitter-style service formerly known as T2, today launched a new approach: Users can skip past its “What’s happening?” nudge and click on a tab labeled Ideas with a lightbulb icon, to view a list of AI-generated posts or replies inspired by their past activity. Publishing one of those suggestions after reviewing it takes a single click.
Gabor Cselle, Pebble’s CEO, says this and generative AI features to come will enable a kinder, safer, and more fun experience. “We want to make sure that you see great content, that you’re posting great content, and that you’re interacting with the community,” he says.
Pebble launched the generative AI feature and ditched its stopgap name today as Cselle, previously a product manager at Google and Twitter, laid out his most detailed vision yet of how he plans to challenge Musk’s X. In that spirit, the service now allows anyone with an account on X to sign up, after previously being open only to invited users. The company closed $1.4 million in funding early this year and has four employees and a handful of contractors. It expects to seek additional funding and eventually run ads and sell subscriptions.
Pebble becomes one of the first social platforms to try putting AI-spun post suggestions in front of users to tweak or publish. Meta offers generated text options for advertisers, and LinkedIn offers them for users, but both require some up-front cues from users. Productivity tools such as Gmail and Outlook have begun offering AI-generated replies for messages, but they either suggest only a few words or require users to write out a prompt for text-generation algorithms to work from. Pebble’s suggestions are fully automatic, drawing AI inspiration from users’ recent posts and interactions on the service as well as a few generic templates the company developed.
Since ChatGPT popularized generative-text technology last year, industry expectations of an AI revolution have led tech companies to rush similar functionality into their services, though the long-term payoff remains uncertain. If Pebble’s Ideas feature works out, it could increase the amount of content and engagement on the service, helping it stand out from the crowded field competing for Twitter fans who dislike Musk’s algorithm and content policing overhauls. No challenger has landed the user base or perfect mix of features to draw a mass exodus from X just yet. X did not respond to a request for comment.
Pebble, which has so far limited signups and invites, is one of the smaller Twitter alternatives. Its over 15,000 registered users compare to hundreds of thousands, and up to tens of millions, on rival services also launched in the past year, such as Bluesky, Spill, and Meta’s Threads.
Cselle says that he is taking seriously lessons learned from working on Google+, the search giant’s failed social network from a decade ago, that launching with a “big bang” doesn’t work. He is betting on slow and steady. “We’re going to make the platform bigger as it gets better, and we’re going to make the platform better as it gets bigger,” he says.
The new name is meant to evoke small stones piling together to create something more significant. Cselle says that profile URLs that take the form of Pebble.is/gabor underscore the theme of people coming together to make something larger. A domain name from Iceland also provides a workaround: Google owns the Pebble.com address through its acquisition of Fitbit, and Cselle figured it would be difficult to wrest out.
Allowing anyone with an X account to sign up, along with the platform’s new AI feature, are supposed to draw in new users, but there are risks. The large language models that generate text can repeat cultural biases about race, gender, and sex and try to pass off misinformation as truth. WIRED’s experiments suggest the Ideas feature’s sometimes peppy or stilted prose could easily leave one’s social feed feeling artificial and dull. An influx of new users could bring with it toxicity and content moderation challenges.
Cselle says he recognizes the perils of offering AI-generated text to users, and that users are free to edit or ignore the suggestions. “We don’t want a situation where bots masquerade as humans and the entire platform is just them talking to each other,” he says.
To protect the integrity of the community as it throws open the door to over 300 million people, Pebble will also be using generative AI to vet new signups. The system will use OpenAI’s GPT-3.5 model to compare the X bio and recent posts of people against Pebble’s community guidelines, which in contrast to Musk’s service ban all nudity and violent content.
Pebble CTO Mike Greer says the aim is to determine “whether someone is fundamentally toxic and treats other people poorly.” Those who are or do will be blocked and and manually reviewed. Pebble intends to vet would-be users against “other sources of truth” online once it opens signups further, he says, to include people without an X account.
Newcomers to Pebble will find that its AI-generated suggestions include posts to introduce yourself on the service or welcome recent joiners. Ideas also encourages playful banter with Pebble’s official account, which itself is a bot powered by generative AI. It can also suggest replies to posts from others.
During my experiments last week, Ideas suggested replying to a post from Katie Harbath, who runs the tech policy consultancy Anchor Change. She had linked to her newsletter discussing social media companies’ election-related content policies. I posted Pebble’s suggested reply in full: “Interesting analysis! It’s crucial to understand how platforms navigate the political landscape. With the upcoming 2024 elections, their approaches will undoubtedly shape the digital political sphere. Thanks for sharing! #PlatformPolitics.”
Although I feared that response came off as spammy, Harbath says it “didn’t scream AI to me.”
Early testers of the AI feature, which is also powered by OpenAI’s GPT-3.5, have edited 85 percent of its suggestions before posting them, Cselle says. The system will learn from users’ feedback, so he’s hopeful Ideas should get better and more personalized over time. “We really want these tools to help people be the best version of themselves and get them to a pure sense of their voice, not replace or strip it,” says Pebble COO and trust and safety policy head Sarah Oh.
More posts are great, but Pebble might not get far without a bounty of new users. It’s significantly smaller than other platforms trying to recapture the spirit of Twitter.
Meta’s Threads signed up over 100 million users, though app-tracking data from Sensor Tower indicates a small fraction are active, and Mastodon, known for its complicated interface, had 1.7 million monthly active users last week. Post registered over 440,000 users as of June, and its active users have been growing 30 percent month over month, with the active users spending an average of 30 minutes per day on the service, CEO Noam Bardin says.
Spoutible gained over 100,000 users within a month of launching in February and is working on an AI assistant to be launched soon, says CEO Christopher Bouzy. It will help users schedule their posts, offer suggested responses to other users, and also help curate content, he says.
Pebble’s Cselle says he’s sticking to his strategy of taking it slowly. He recently added an algorithmic feed to the service and plans to soon court celebrities, brands, and public figures to join up. He says data from the service are encouraging. About one in five users log in on the 30th day after they first sign up, a figure ahead of averages by some reckonings for the common industry measure of retention. Over 30 percent of active users are writing posts and replies.
One convert to Pebble, Limhi Montoya, who helps clients become “the MVP of their lives,” says the service has been the Twitter replacement best fostering a digital town square. The oversight of new users and Ideas, which he had early access to, are significant contributors. “It has that strong communal feeling,” he says. “People are encouraged to talk to each other.” Starting today, more of what users say on the service may not be wholly their own words.